The Man Who Brought Us Cadillac and Lincoln

Culture Watch

Mr. Mieczkowski is associate professor of history, Dowling College, akdale, New York.

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Few Americans know the name of Henry Leland. But they know the two automobile companies he founded, Cadillac and Lincoln. The high quality and standards that Leland demanded of his cars still resonate today, as Detroit faces stiff competition from automakers around the world.

The importance of Cadillac and Lincoln in upholding the reputation of American automakers was driven home in July 2003, when marketing research firm J. D. Power and Associates released the results of two surveys. In its Vehicle Dependability Study, a yardstick for quality and reliability, only four American nameplates made the list's top ten (in order of placement: Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercury; a Japanese brand, Lexus, came in first). In its Customer Service Index Study, which measured consumer satisfaction with dealers, again, just four American brands ranked in the top ten (in order: Saturn, Lincoln, Cadillac, and Buick; another Japanese company, Infiniti, topped the list).

Cadillac and Lincoln made the top ten in both surveys. The quality of these two renowned American lines can be traced to Henry Leland. Perhaps the country's most underrated automaker, Leland focused on precision manufacturing and put American automobiles on the world stage.

Leland's early work as a machinist introduced him to the idea of precision manufacturing. Born in 1843 in Vermont, he made guns during the Civil War at a federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then at a Colt factory in Connecticut. Later, he found work at a Rhode Island company that made machine tools and micrometers. "Tolerance" is a machinist's term meaning the variation that part sizes will permit, and Leland's jobs involved using extremely low tolerances, just fractions of an inch.

Restless, Leland wanted to strike out on his own and start a factory. He moved to Chicago to chase his dream, but in a twist of fate, he arrived there on what became one of the city's most notorious days, May 4, 1886. It was a time when workers bristled against the power of industrialists, and on that day, a labor demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square turned violent. Someone threw a bomb into police ranks; officers fired into the crowd, and when the smoke cleared, policemen and civilians lay dead. Alarmed by the riot, Leland packed his bags and left. The bloody day may have cost Chicago a place as a prime site for automobile manufacturing, as Leland's companies later became formidable forces in the field.

Leland decided to settle in Detroit, and he founded a firm to make gears, machine tools, and gasoline engines. His company's products had tolerances as low as 1/2,000th of an inch, a spectacular achievement for the time. Word spread of Leland's high-quality products, and his customers grew, among them early automobile manufacturer Ransom E. Olds, who used Leland's gears and engines in his cars. The Cadillac Automobile Company recruited Leland, and two years later he took over the company and reorganized it as the Cadillac Motor Company, becoming its first president. By 1905, Cadillac was one of the world's leading car makers.

Cadillacs became known for their innovations. They sheltered passengers from the elements with closed sedans--in contrast to the open, window-less bodies that were standard at the time--and also featured self-starting motors. (Tragedy inspired the latter, as one of Leland's friends had died from injuries sustained while cranking a car.) Moreover, Cadillacs were revered for their quality, all the more remarkable because they used mass-produced parts. Henry Ford's assembly line was several years away, and cars were still built manually. Workers also used hand-made parts with gross tolerances, employing a tedious process of filing and grinding pieces to make them fit together. Such hand-made parts carried a talisman of refinement and precision, or so many people believed. Leland knew better. He felt that manually built components lacked the precision of mass-produced, standardized parts, and he wanted to prove it.

In 1908, Leland got his chance. England's Royal Automobile Club challenged automakers to test the precision of standardized parts during a special competition. Three Cadillacs, the only cars that entered the contest, were shipped to England, and officials completely disassembled them, mixed up their parts, and then reassembled the cars. All three ran perfectly. On the strength of this performance, Cadillac became the first American company to win the prestigious Dewar Trophy, awarded to the company that introduced the year's greatest automotive innovation. Leland helped to dispel the notion that machine-made components lacked the quality of their hand-made counterparts. After triumphing in England, Cadillac adopted the proud advertising slogan, "Standard of the World."

In 1909, the General Motors Company bought Cadillac for almost $6 million, and GM President Walter Durant asked Leland and his son, Wilfred, to stay and run the division. Cadillac soon became GM's prestige brand, and its reputation loomed larger in 1912 when it became the only company ever to win a second Dewar Trophy, this time for its electric starting and ignition system.

In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, Leland wanted Cadillac to produce airplane engines, and when Durant refused, Leland left. But at 73 years old, he stood on the cusp of another great achievement.

Leland formed a new company, and friends urged him to name it after himself. Had he done so, the name "Leland" would probably be a familiar one today. Instead, Leland decided to honor one of his idols. Since the Civil War, he had deeply admired Abraham Lincoln; his personal library was stocked with books on the sixteenth president, and a portrait of Lincoln graced his office. In 1917, the Lincoln Motor Company was born, and for the rest of the war the firm produced airplane engines.

After the war, Leland turned again to car manufacturing, unveiling a new Lincoln automobile with a powerful V-8 engine. His new company, however, stumbled on financial difficulties, as Leland struggled to repay loans; the Treasury Department also wrongly sued him for owing more than $5 million in war profits taxes (it later dropped the charges). Henry Ford provided a way out for Leland when he bought Lincoln at the fire-sale price of $8 million. But Leland never got along with Ford, whose leadership he considered truculent and intrusive. In 1923, he left Lincoln and automobile manufacturing for good. By the time Leland died in 1932, Lincoln was firmly ensconced as Ford's luxury division.

Leland remains a little-known yet crucial pioneer in automaking, a man who parlayed his experience in tool casting into luxury automobile manufacturing. At a time when American car makers yearned to establish themselves against European manufacturers, Leland won international acclaim and championed innovations and precision engineering. Today, at a time when the domestic automakers face even more worldwide competition, the companies that Leland founded still attract attention for quality.

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Ken W. Stephenson - 6/19/2005

Kettering also developed the breaker point/distributor ignition system that used a single coil. It is still in use today with electronic upgrades. Eventually all cars used this system, replacing the Model T's unreliable vibrating reed spark coils which required frequent "tune- up". The term tune-up, however, remains today as a carry over.

Paul Siff - 8/27/2003

I think some credit for Cadillac's innovations should go to the master engineer Charles F. Kettering. It was he who invented the lectric self-starter after the lamentable incident in which a friend died (of gangrene, I believe), after breaking his arm while trying to crank-start a stalled car. Kettering was also instrumental in designing the early V-8 engines.

Bernard Weisberger - 8/23/2003

Purely to keep the facts straight, the president of General Motors, when it bought out Cadillac in 1909, was William, not Walter Durant--William Crapo Durant to give the full title.